Playing without senior forward Kadin Shedrick and senior forward Dylan Disu, the team’s two tallest players, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns tried to mount a second-half comeback before falling short against the No. 5 UConn Huskies, 81-71, in the Saatva Empire Classic in New York at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
Game-changing news broke just before the delayed tip — Shedrick (shoulders) was unavailable for precautionary reasons a day after scoring a career-high 27 points and securing seven rebounds, but also appearing to aggravate his surgically-repaired right shoulder on several occasions.
Texas sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell scored a career-high 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting with eight rebounds, including four off the offensive glass, two assists, two blocks, and one steal in an energetic performance that ranked as his best all-around effort in burnt orange and white by a significant margin.
As the Longhorns struggled through the first half, Mitchell’s 15 points helped to keep head coach Rodney Terry’s team afloat until senior guard Max Abmas and junior guard Tyrese Hunter found their footing after halftime, at least to an extent.
In the end, however, the experienced Huskies were able to hit too many late-clock shots, many of them from sophomore forward Alex Karaban, who scored a team-high 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting with four of those field goals coming from beyond the arc.
Whether the news about Shedrick’s absence was deflating or Texas just lacked the size to impact the UConn offense, the Longhorns started slowly, falling behind 9-2 a little more than two and a half minutes into the game, prompting an early timeout by Terry.
A three by senior forward Brock Cunningham only temporarily slowed the Huskies, who hit a quick 5-0 spurt before Mitchell scored on an offensive rebound and then slammed home an alley-oop from Abmas on a fast break.
UConn, however, proved itself dangerous at the rim, including in transition, with consecutive dunks by Samson Johnson for an 18-9 lead at the belated under-16 timeout, only briefly pausing the onslaught by the Huskies that included a three by Cam Spencer and a three on the fast break by Karaban as UConn started 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc. Terry was forced to use a second timeout in an attempt to keep the 24-11 margin from turning into a route.
With limited defensive options, Cunningham ended up matched up against 7’2, 280-pound center Donovan Clingan, who sealed the much smaller defender and converted a three-point play.
Still searching for solutions, Terry went to a 2-3 zone with a switch to man-to-man defense in late-clock situations, but a UConn started to figure out the zone, Johnson recorded another dunk, this time on an alley oop.
The struggles stopping the Huskies obscured a strong start for Mitchell, who was active around the rim and hit a sweet spinning fadeaway jumper.
Dillon Mitchell is heating up!!! pic.twitter.com/MpNm8ZpWQr— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) November 21, 2023
The Longhorns continued to struggle with the high collective motor of the Huskies as a hustle play after a defensive rebound resulted in a steal and a layup and a put-back slam with Mitchell doing most of the hard work in keeping Texas somewhat in the game — the bouncy sophomore scored 14 of the first 26 points for the Horns and had a resounding block at the rim after a three-point play.
One stretch was emblematic of the first half. Hunter drove into traffic and tried to use a pump fake on a jump stop, but got blocked nonetheless. On the other end, 6’5 guard Tristen Newton drove on the much smaller Abmas and missed the jumper, but Johnson got the offensive rebound and drew a foul for a trip to the free-throw line.
Competitively, Texas was settling in, though, with sophomore guard Chendall Weaver using his athleticism to get to the rim and finish a layup through contact before converting the three-point play.
It just wasn’t enough to made a run late in the first half with UConn heading into halftime leading 46-33 despite Spencer and Clingan dealing with foul trouble. Without Shedrick and Disu, Texas was forced to rely more heavily on its two lead guards and they didn’t exactly come through in the first half as Abmas scored four points on 2-of-7 shooting while finishing minus-19 and Hunter went scoreless on four shot attempts.
A catch-and-shoot three by Abmas and a back-down jumper by Mitchell got Texas off to a strong start in the second half, but Spencer responded with a three of his own, Abmas missed two subsequent decent looks, and Onyema was called for a goal tend. Gaining confidence as a shooter, Mitchell hit his own catch-and-shoot jumper.
The lead guards helped cut the margin to single digits as Hunter created a dunk for Onyema, Abmas hit a three, Hunter drove for a layup, his first basket of the game, and Abmas threw a lob to Onyema for a layup and a trip to the line after the under-16 timeout with UConn lead at seven points.
During that stretch, Texas hit 5-of-6 shots with Abmas and Hunter combining for eight point and four assists in the second half.
While Onyema hit the free throw, Hunter was called for a silly loose-ball foul late in the shot clock well outside the arc and Spencer hit a lucky leaner to rescue another late-clock situation. More difficult shots when down for UConn, including a spinning layup and a contested floater, stemming the run by Texas and pushing the margin back to 10 points at the under-12 timeout.
Then Karaban hit a three and lazy handles by Abmas led to a steal and a lob dunk by Johnson to push the lead back to 14 points. But Texas responded with a 7-0 run keyed by a fast-break layup through contact converted into a three-point play and a fast-break jumper by Hunter that forced a timeout by UConn head coach Dan Hurley.
After a defensive rebound by the Longhorns, Horton hit a huge three to cut the deficit to four points, but Karaban hit a late-clock floater and jumper sandwiched around a missed step-back three from Horton, leading to a timeout by Terry with 2:17 remaining and the Longhorns trailing by six points.
With a chance to set up a close finish, Hunter missed a hanging layup, Abmas picked up his dribble in the corner on a switch and then put his pass into a dangerous placed that caused a turnover, and Karaban hit yet another difficult late-clock shot over Cunningham that effectively ended the game.
Texas returns to the Moody Center after Thanksgiving for a Sunday matchup against Wyoming at 2 p.m. Central on Longhorn Network.